Twenty years ago in 1999 the euro currency was introduced; Ricky Martin launched his English-language singing career; cartoon SpongeBob SquarePants made its debut, and East Timor became independent.
It was also the last time the Social Democrats were the biggest party in Finland’s parliament, with Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen leading a coalition government of the National Coalition Party, Swedish People’s Party, Left Alliance and Greens.
History might be about to repeat itself with the same parties in line for possible consideration in the next government, as SDP chairman Antti Rinne starts the process of figuring out which parties would make the best partners.
The story of Finland’s 2019 general election is not just told by the wafer-thin margins that separate the top three parties. Nor that the right wing Finns Party came within spitting distance of being the country’s dominant political force.
The real story of these elections is the rise of the left in Finnish politics, bucking a trend seen in many other parts of Europe. Between them, the leading three parties on the left of the political spectrum picked up close to 200,000 more votes at this general election than the one held four years ago.
By comparison, the leading three parties on the right of the political spectrum lost a little over 200,000 votes in that same time.
“To be honest I was quite astonished” says new SDP member of parliament Eveliina Heinäluoma, as she watched the election results come in and saw her party on top for the first time since she was an 11-year old child.
“The feeling is that the Finnish people want change. They want to change the policy in Finland towards more equality and for the better of ordinary Finns” she tells News Now Finland.
“I think that the feeling at the moment is that there has been too many cuts on health care and on social benefits and now the change needs to happen and I think the results show Finnish people want a change towards equality and a better future for all” Heinäluoma explains.
Fast growth for Greens
The ‘Green Wave’ that’s washed over German, Dutch and Belgian regional elections recently, and propelled the party into Luxembourg’s governing coalition for the first time, has also reached the shores of Finland.
Between the 2015 and 2019 elections, the Greens under Pekka Haavisto picked up more than 100,000 extra votes.
In the span of just two parliament terms they’ve doubled their number of MPs from 10 to 20.
“It has been a very very optimistic view for the Greens, and particularly it’s an optimistic view now for the European elections” says Haavisto.
The 61-year old became Europe’s first Green environment minister in 1995, and it looks like he’s poised to be back in government again.
Although SDP leader Antti Rinne said there had been some pre-election discussions about possible coalition-building with other parties, Haavisto says there was never anything so formal.
“In my understanding, we have started from the point of let’s see the election results first, even who will be the biggest, and only after that speculate who will then take the seat of the prime minister or formation of the government” he tells News Now Finland.
It’s clear though that their strong, continued advocacy for the environment and to mitigate climate change is what brought them a torrent of extra votes this year.
“First of all very few people in Finland one year ago knew what was a sink – you know, a carbon sink. Now everybody is an expert of it. Then if you look at the [domestic political] party scene more widely there might be 20% or less of people who are climate skeptical, but 80% is on the other side”.
“We have a clear clear majority of the Finns who are concerned about climate change and who want to do something about this problem” Haavisto explain.
New Green MP Maria Ohisalo, tipped by many as the possible next leader of the party, says it’s because the Greens have been leading their political agenda with the environmental, that it’s finally paying dividends in the form of votes.
“Obviously the biggest question nowadays is climate change. The greens have been having that question and the discussion on the political agenda for the past 30 years and now finally all the parties are forced to speak about the theme, so I’m glad the elections became the ‘climate change elections’ here in Finland” she says.
Left Alliance breaks new ground
It was a good election for the Left Alliance as well, gaining four new seats and increasing their votes by 40,000 since the last general election.
Former party leader and presidential candidate Paavo Arhinmäki says their electoral success is all about the efforts behind the scenes from party volunteers as well as sitting MPs.
“We have worked hard the last ten years to modernize the party and this is the first victory for us in parliament elections in 24 years. It’s a result of the hard work” Arhinmäki says.
Party chair Li Andersson received the second highest personal vote tally – “I’m stunned and very happy” – a personal victory for the Turku MP who inherited the leadership role from Arinmäki.
“I think it seems we’ve managed to realise potential that we’ve had in different voter groups since the new seats we got were from Helsinki of course, a big city with lots of urban voters, but also in northern Finland Merja Kyllönen getting a lot of votes in Kainuu, which is far from urban regions; and also in Uusimaa and Central Finland both are quite different electoral districts” she tells News Now Finland.
The party also gained support from younger voters, as well as their traditional target groups.
Like the Greens and SDP, the Left Alliance have been a vocal opponent of the previous government’s austerity measures, and joined parliamentary interpellations to press home their point. So could that alliance extend from cooperation in opposition, to government?
Pundits – and other politicians – are divided on whether it’s better for the SDP to have the Left Alliance with them in government, or risk them becoming stronger on the sidelines; or whether the SDP needs them at all if it’s anyway adding a larger party like the National Coalition Party or Centre Party to the mix.
“We’ve been talking within the party and of course there’s been some informal talks with the parties, but we’re still seeing how the general landscape will be. But we’re definitely happy the Centre Party did not rule out going into government” explains Andersson, adding that the Centre Party without Juha Sipilä as chairman would be easier to work with from her perspective, than the National Coalition Party.